Genre, genre, who’s got the genre?

by Robbi Hess

The difference between nonfiction and fiction is like the difference between a photograph and a painting. My nonfiction works consisted of snapshots of the people I interviewed – their thoughts and the issues I explored. Fiction has enabled me to explore my creative side – to paint word pictures with wide brush strokes, to give my unconscious free rein and to entertain rather than simply inform.

One brilliant New York morning, not too long ago, I was faced with the realization that I was a nonfiction writer. I had always been a writer but had never stopped to consider my genre.

I pulled out all of my clips and pored over them. Sure enough, all of my words were non-fiction based. Not a single bit of fiction in them. During my creative nonfiction stints I was able to insert some flowery prose but there was nothing that was specifically and wholly borne of my creative mind.

Now after spending the past 10 years writing and being published in the nonfiction arena I decided it was time to try my hand at fiction.

I knew I had the ability to be creative. During a career spent cultivating newspaper and magazine article ideas I knew I possessed the knowledge to know where, how and when to market my articles. I knew which publications published the type of work I produced and I also knew their editorial guidelines and lead times. My ability to determine which direction to angle the story so it would appeal to that publication’s readership and my skill in crafting a lead helped me land numerous paying assignments.

Because of my journalist training I learned to pare my words back to the bare minimum yet achieve the full impact. Working under deadlines, following-up and sticking to word counts were habits deeply ingrained in my professional mind. While nonfiction didn’t necessarily rely on my style as a writer, it certainly depended on the substance injected into the piece.

I will admit that even though nonfiction isn’t making me wealthy it is certainly is more lucrative than fiction. There’s more demand for nonfiction and creative nonfiction and less competition for the truly dedicated writer – one who is willing to research articles about winter in the middle of a July heat wave or the writer who can think Halloween while hanging the shamrocks at St. Patrick’s Day. Nonfiction also relies on the ability to take a story that has a broad focus and be able to slant it to suit several markets.

That being said, I knew if I had the skills to meet deadlines, come up with punchy ideas for magazines and newspapers, had a grasp of grammar and style then I could certainly turn my hand toward fiction…how hard could it be?

Following my first fiction writing class I learned that while fiction writing might look deceptively simple looks can be deceiving. Writing, and reading fiction out loud to a group of strangers meant I had to have the backbone to be able to expose myself, and my words, to others.

It was exhilarating to be able to embellish, tell falsehoods and get away with it. I could use flowery words like melancholy, rotund and giggled.

In this column I’ll be sharing my experiences as I strive to turn my knowledge of nonfiction toward the new challenge of publishing fiction.

We’ll discuss things like: “Where do you get your ideas?” (That’s the question I learned most all newbies ask published authors and the question that most authors dread.) We will learn how to forage for ideas, explore the recesses of our minds and cultivate those ideas as we make our way down the path toward fiction publication.

© 2002 by Robbi Hess

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